Sunday, January 15, 2017

Louisa Catherine Adams-The Fifth First Lady of the United States (Part I)

by Lauren Gilbert

Louisa Catherine Johnson 1794

Best known for being the first and (until inauguration day January 20, 2017) the only foreign-born first lady, Louisa Adams did not see the United States until she had been married four years.  She was married to John Quincy Adams, son of John and Abigail Adams, in spite of their and her father’s disapproval, and her own doubts.  Known for ill health and physical delicacy, she was also capable of decisive action when the situation required.  In their long marriage (from July 26, 1797 to John Quincy’s death February 23, 1848), they had several periods of separation and serious points of disagreement; however, she did everything she could to further his career and their letters show an on-going attachment.  Her life was a long and fascinating life, filled with adventures, trials and successes.   What intrigues me most about her is her rather unique point of view and her inner dialogues.

Louisa Catherine Johnson was born February 12, 1775 to Joshua Johnson and Catherine Newth or Nuth.  She was the second child, and second daughter, born in a family of nine children (eight girls and one boy).  Born in Maryland, Joshua Johnson was an American merchant, whose business was originally located in Maryland, arrived in England in 1771 at the behest of his employer Charles Wallace to act as the representative of Wallace, Davidson and Johnson, an importing firm they started in Annapolis MD, trading tobacco and mercantile goods.  Catherine Nuth was an English woman and possibly the daughter of a shoemaker who was known for her beauty and wit.   In November of 1773, their first child Ann (known as Nancy) was born.  Joshua’s business practices were highly speculative.  In 1778, at the height of the hostilities between America and Great Britain, Joshua took his family to Nantes, France. Louise was placed with Nancy in a convent school where she learned fluent French and was exposed to the Roman Catholic faith.  The family returned to London after peace was established, about 1783. 

After their return to England, Louisa had to relearn the English language.  Louisa was enrolled in boarding school with two sisters, where she did not fit in well, coming out of a French convent school.    Her studies included mathematics, stitching and embroidery, drawing and (interestingly) philosophy.  While at school, Louisa experienced a period of illness (including fainting) after which she was removed from school and was placed with some family friends, John and Elizabeth Hewlett. Both were highly intelligent and rather radical.  John helped wean Louisa from the Catholic ideas she had acquired in France to a more normal Anglican tradition, and Elizabeth was a strong minded woman (not the passive, dependent type admired by Louisa’s father and portrayed in current literature).   When Louisa returned to school, she came under the influence of a teacher, Miss Young, who encouraged her to read widely and think for herself and to express her thoughts.  An intelligent girl, she developed an interest in science, read controversial authors of the day, and questioned herself and her beliefs as well as her place and the place of women in general in her world.  She spent her pocket money on books.   After a few years, she and her sisters were removed from school in 1788 due to her father’s facing bankruptcy, about which the girls were kept in ignorance.  The girls then had a governess.  After some dispute (including concerns about Joshua’s lavish lifestyle), Joshua’s business partnership was extended, but financial problems resulted in the partnership being dissolved in 1789.  Joshua established himself on his own.  However, things weren’t the same, at least in part due to a decline in the Maryland tobacco trade and increased manufacturing of goods in America. 

An interesting side note: a marriage record exists showing that Joshua Johnson married Catherine Newth on August 22, 1785 in Westminster.   She had been known as Catherine Johnson, wife of Joshua Johnson, for years, and all of their children’s births were recorded as legitimate accordingly; there is no indication that she was not Joshua’s wife.  Certainly, there is no indication that neighbours, friends or their children were aware of any irregularity.  However, there is also no known record of an earlier marriage.  At least five of their children were born before the recorded marriage in 1785.  If that was in fact their only marriage, discovery could have meant scandal if not ruin for Joshua Johnson and his family.  Joshua was appointed consul by then-President Thomas Jefferson to act for America in England in 1790 (an appointment which would have been very unlikely if there had been questions about his marriage).  This appointment required him to report information about British shipping and preparations for war and locations of British fishing and whaling fleets.  He was also to help American seaman who had been impressed by the British when possible and to provide local intelligence of a political nature.  In return, Mr. Johnson made it clear that being in that position was expensive and had no hesitation in pursuing remuneration from Mr. Jefferson and Congress.

Mr. Johnson considered himself an American wholeheartedly, and there is an act recorded in the annals of the Maryland senate stating that he and his children were American citizens.  He intended, at some future point, to take his family to America and intended his daughters to marry Americans (preferably from the south).  Joshua had a very traditional view of the role of women.  However, his daughters were raised as proper English girls of well-to-do families were raised: they were educated, taught to sing, play an instrument and dance, how to speak French and how to supervise servants.  Although learning to manage servants included learning to cook and to make and mend clothes, the young ladies’  “work” was primarily decorative embroidery.  They were prepared for courtship and marriage, to be fine ladies who were cared for, not to be help meets.  She and her siblings experienced none of the alarms, privations and practical experience of girls raised in America during the Revolutionary period.  This difference in upbringing and outlook would affect Louisa’s entire life.  Louisa and her two  sisters Nancy and Caroline basically made their social debuts more or less at the same time, with Louisa being fifteen years old and Caroline a year younger.  Louisa was a pretty girl, more slender than was strictly fashionable, with large dark eyes.  Louisa was known to be shy and somewhat retiring but was very observant of what was going on around her.  In spite of Mr. Johnson’s financial fluctuations, the family entertained but, because no formal diplomatic relationship had been established between the United States and Great Britain, Johnson’s access to Parliament or court was restricted to secretaries and lower level officials, limiting his activities as consul as well as his family’s social access. 

It wasn’t until August of 1792, when Thomas Pinckney, appointed minister plenipotentiary, finally arrived in London with his wife Elizabeth that the social opportunities arose for the Johnson family.  Louisa became a favourite of Mrs. Pinckney and was allowed to visit and stay with her.  Mr. and Mrs. Pinckney were welcomed into Anglo-American society and, as a result, the Johnson family also had some access to that society, mingling with members of Parliament, artists and other notables.  Pretty, well dressed and well mannered, Louisa and her sisters were allowed to attend the social functions when invited, gaining a social polish and understanding of status.  Sadly,   Elizabeth Pinckney died two years after arriving in London, to Louisa’s sorrow.  Louisa, Nancy and Caroline all had beaus and flirtations. However, Mr. Johnson was quite selective on his daughters’ behalves, discouraging multiple suitors of each.  Although not wealthy, the young ladies were raised to expect a dowry of 5000 pounds each, so had no reason to expect that there would be difficulty receiving suitable offers.  (There is nothing to indicate that Mrs. Johnson or any of her daughters were aware of the vagaries of Mr. Johnson’s finances.)  Louisa did not seem to have been in a hurry to marry, enjoying the social activities and engaging a variety of individuals with her singing and conversation. Interestingly, she felt her intelligence and wide reading was not an asset for a young woman seeking a marriage partner, so she concealed that aspect of herself. It was as a polished young lady that Louisa met John Quincy Adams, resident minister to Holland and son of John and Abigail Adams.

In Part II, we will discuss Louisa’s marriage to John Quincy, her feelings and her experiences.

Sources include:  “Louisa Adams American First Lady” by Betty Boyd Caroli, May 28, 2004. Here.

 Find-a-grave on line.  “Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams,” biography by William Bjornstad (no post date).  Here.  “First Lady Biography: Louisa Adams.” (No author or post date shown) Here.  “Louisa Catherine Adams  (1775-1852).”  (no author or post date shown)  Here. “Meet the First and Only Foreign-born First Lady: Louisa Catherine Adams” by Jackie Mansky, May 25, 2016. Here.

White House Historical Association on-line. “Louisa Adams.” (no author or post date shown.)  Here.  “From a London Alley to the White House” by Louisa Thomas, October 31, 2014.  Here. 

Heffron, Margery M. LOUISA CATHERINE The Other Mrs. Adams.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014.

Thomas, Louisa.  LOUISA The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams.  New York: Penguin Press, 2016. 

Images from Wikimedia Commons: Louisa Catherine Johnson Here.

About the author: Lauren Gilbert is the author of Heyerwood: A Novel, released in 2011.  A second novel, A Rational Attachment, is in process.  She lives in Florida with her husband, with some roses and gardenia, herbs and pineapples.  Please visit her website here  for more information.

Editors' Weekly Round-up, January 15, 2017

by the EHFA Editors

Never miss an article on English Historical Fiction Authors. This week featured:

by Kristin Gleeson

by Maria Grace

by Barbara Kyle
Editor's Choice

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Queen Elizabeth, Spain, and the Sea Beggars

by Barbara Kyle

William de la Marck
[Public Domain] Wikimedia Commons

This is a David and Goliath story of the 16th century. "David" was Dutch rebel William de la Marck. "Goliath" was the mighty Philip II of Spain. Elizabeth I of England was the surprise catalyst of an uprising that sparked the Dutch War of Independence against Spain.

Elizabeth I by William Sugar
[Public Domain] Wikimedia Commons

In 1571 Elizabeth, at the age of thirty-eight, had reigned for thirteen years. She was far from secure on her throne. England had no standing army and an undersized navy, and Elizabeth feared that Philip of Spain, the most powerful monarch in Europe, was poised to invade. To strike at her, his army would sail from the Netherlands. There, less than a hundred miles off her shores, his troops had already subjugated the Dutch.

Philip II

Philip was lord of Spain, portions of the Italian peninsula, and the Low Countries (modern-day Belgium and the Netherlands) whose cities of Antwerp and Bruges were Europe's richest trading centres. He was also stupendously wealthy thanks to his vast New World possessions. The Spanish Main, a scythe-shaped slice of the globe, ran from Florida through Mexico and Central America to the north coast of South America, gateway to the riches of Peru.

Twice a year the Spanish treasure fleet, the flota, crossed the Atlantic to deliver hoards of New World gold, silver, and precious gems to Philip's treasury in Spain. Philip used this constant river of riches to finance his constant wars. Throughout Europe, Spain's armies were feared and triumphant.

Nowhere were they more feared than in the Netherlands. There, Philip's general, the Duke of Alba, had crushed Dutch resistance to Spanish rule. "The Iron Duke," as Alba was called, was governor of the Netherlands from 1567 and had set up a special court called the Council of Troubles under whose authority he executed thousands, including leading Dutch nobles. The people called it the Council of Blood. Here are Alba's own words: "It is better that a kingdom be laid waste and ruined through war for God and for the king, than maintained intact for the devil and his heretical horde."

The Duke of Alba
The Dutch Prince William of Orange was one of the ten thousand people summoned before the Council. But the Prince escaped. He gathered a rebel army and marched into Brabant, the Dutch heartland. But his troops were inexperienced and untrained, and with winter approaching and money running out, the Prince turned back. He went into exile in the German lands, awaiting his next chance.

Religion, as always in the 16th century, was a fiery instrument of division. Philip of Spain was known as "the most Catholic prince in Christendom." Catholics considered Elizabeth of England a bastard, since they did not acknowledge her mother Anne Boleyn's marriage to her father Henry VIII, and a heretic, since Elizabeth's first act as queen had been to make the realm officially Protestant. That act had also made her the supreme head of the church in England, a concept that Catholics found grotesque: a woman as head of a church. In 1570 Pope Pious V excommunicated Elizabeth in a fierce decree, calling her a heretic and "the servant of crime." He released all her subjects from any allegiance to her, and excommunicated any who obeyed her orders. Scores of affluent Catholics left England with their families and settled in the Spanish-occupied Netherlands.

Mary, Queen of Scots
These English exiles considered Elizabeth's cousin Mary, Queen of Scots the legitimate claimant to the English throne. But by this time Elizabeth held Mary under house arrest in England, a comfortable captivity in Sheffield Castle. Elizabeth did not dare set Mary free, fearing she would foment an invasion by a Catholic League of Spain, France, and the Pope. In the Netherlands, the English exiles were plotting to overthrow Elizabeth with military help from their powerful Spanish friends and install Mary in her place . . . and there, in the Netherlands, just a day's sail from the English coast, Spanish troops under the merciless Duke of Alva stood ready should Philip give the invasion order.

But the Dutch rebels had not given up, only gone to ground. They still considered Prince William of Orange their leader. He was keen for a second chance to win back his country for the Dutch. And Elizabeth of England was eager to secretly support him. That second chance came in the spring of 1572. This time the rebels would not come marching, as an army. They would come from the sea: a motley fleet called the Sea Beggars.

The origin of their name is intriguing. Before Alba's arrival in the Netherlands the governor was Philip's sister, Margaret. A delegation of over two hundred Dutch nobles appeared before her with a petition stating their grievances. She was alarmed at the appearance of so large a body, but one of her councillors exclaimed, "What, madam, is your highness afraid of these beggars?" The Dutch heard the insult, and after Margaret ignored their petition they declared they were ready to become beggars in their country's cause, and adopted the name "Beggars" with defiant pride. Scores of them took to the sea to harry Spanish shipping. Led by William de la Marck, they called themselves the Sea Beggars.

William de la Marck

For several years Elizabeth gave safe conduct to the Sea Beggars, allowing La Marck and his rebel mariners to make Dover and the creeks and bays along England's south coast their home as they continued their raids on Spanish shipping, which infuriated Philip. England was far weaker than mighty Spain, so Elizabeth was playing "a game of cat and mouse" with Philip, says historian Susan Ronald in her book The Pirate Queen; helping the Sea Beggars was "the only course open to her to show her defiance of Spain."

But as 1572 dawned Philips's fury grew dangerous. In March, Elizabeth ordered the expulsion of the Sea Beggars from her realm, an act that people assumed was to placate Philip. It turned out, however, that Elizabeth had struck a lethal blow at Spain: by expelling the Sea Beggars she had unleashed their latent power. For a month theses rebel privateers wandered the sea, homeless and hungry, until, on the first of April, they made a desperate attack on the Dutch port city of Brielle, which had been left unattended by the Spanish garrison. They astounded everyone, even themselves, by capturing the city.

The Capture of Brielle

Their victory provided the Dutch opposition's first foothold on land and launched a revolution: the Dutch War of Independence. The capture of Brielle gave heart to other Dutch cities suffering under Spain's harsh rule, and when the Sea Beggars pushed on inland they rejoiced to see town after town open their gates to them. The exiled Prince of Orange now sent troops to support them. But Spain ferociously struck back. Taking the rebel-held cities of Mechelen and Zutphen, the Duke of Alba's troops massacred the inhabitants; in Mechelen the atrocities went on for four days. The town of Haarlem bravely resisted during a long siege, but finally surrendered. Alba's troops methodically cut the throats of the entire garrison, some two thousand men, in cold blood.

By 1585 Elizabeth could no longer tolerate Spain's tyranny in the Netherlands, and she sent an army under the Earl of Leicester to support the Dutch revolution. Nevertheless, it took six decades more until the people of the Netherlands won their freedom, in 1648.

To this day, on the First of April every year, the Dutch people still exuberantly celebrate the Sea Beggars' capture of Brielle.

This Editor's Choice was first published on November 26, 2013. 


Barbara Kyle is the author of seven acclaimed historical novels – the Thornleigh Saga series – all published internationally, and of contemporary thrillers, three under pen-name Stephen Kyle, including Beyond Recall, a Literary Guild Selection. Her latest novel is The Traitor's Daughter. Over 500,000 copies of her books have been sold in seven countries. Barbara has taught writers at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies and is a popular guest presenter at writers' conferences. Before becoming an author Barbara enjoyed a twenty-year acting career in television, film, and stage productions in Canada and the U.S.

Barbara’s workshops, master classes, and manuscript evaluations have launched many writers to published success. She recently released a non-fiction writing resource, Page-Turner: Your Path to Writing a Novel That Publishers Want and Readers Buy. Barbara welcomes you to her website:

The Sea Beggars feature in Barbara Kyle's novel The Queen's Exiles.

About The Queen's Exiles: "1572. Europe is in turmoil. A vengeful faction of exiled English Catholics is plotting to overthrow Queen Elizabeth and install her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots on the throne. And in the Netherlands the streets are red with the blood of those who dare to oppose the brutal Spanish occupation. But amid the unrest one resourceful young woman has made a lucrative enterprise. Scottish-born Fenella Doorn salvages crippled vessels. It is on one of these ships that she meets wealthy Baron Adam Thornleigh. Secretly drawn to him, Fenella can’t refuse when Adam enlists her to join him in war-torn Brussels to help find his traitorous wife, Frances—and the children she’s taken from him. But Adam and Fenella will put their lives in peril as they attempt to rescue his young ones, defend the crown, and restore the peace that few can remember."

Barbara Kyle's six-book Thornleigh Saga follows an English middle-class family's rise through three tumultuous Tudor reigns.

"Riveting...adventurous...superb!" Historical Novel Society, "Editor's Choice."
"Kyle knows what historical fiction readers crave." RT Book Reviews
"A beautifully written and compelling novel. Again, Barbara Kyle reigns!” - New York Times bestselling author Karen Harper

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Divorce, Regency style

by Maria Grace

Until the last few years of the seventeenth century England was a land without divorce. After that, divorce was possible, but very, very difficult. “Between 1670 and 1857, 379 Parliamentary divorces were requested and 324 were granted. Of those 379 requests, eight were by wives, and only four of those were granted.” (Wright, 2004)

Before the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, which finally legalized divorce in the civil courts, divorce was governed by the ecclesiastical court and the canon law of the Church of England. The Church opposed ending a marriage. It only permitted a couple a ‘divorce’ that amounted to what we call today a legal separation. Parties could break up housekeeping and were no longer legally and financially responsible for one another. But, and this is the big one, they could not remarry.

To obtain the complete dissolution of a marriage and the right to remarry other people, Parliament had to step in and declare the couple an exception to the law of the land. Hence divorce truly required an act of Parliament.

The process could take two years and involve three separate trials. The first would be obtaining a ‘divorce’ (in today’s terms a legal separation) from one of the Consistory Courts. Then a criminal conviction proving adultery (criminal conversation) would be necessary. Finally, a Private Act of Divorcement would be brought before Parliament, which if granted, would dissolve the marriage.

Legal Separation

Canon law allowed a separation (in the era called a divorce), called the divortium a mensa et thoro (separation from bed and board). The Ecclesiastical courts permitted it for certain specified causes. The causes were life-threatening cruelty and adultery by the husband, or adultery by the wife. This act allowed spouses to live separately and ended the woman’s coverture to her husband and his financial responsibility for her.

If a spouse, man or wife, simply ran off and deserted the other, the doctrine of coverture complicated matters, because they were still legally one person. A woman could not simply leave her husband’s home without permission. He could legally drag her back under his roof—and even soundly beat her for her efforts!

If she managed to leave, the wife had no access to moneys or properties from the marriage, everything belonged to the husband. Nor did she have any right to her children. They too belonged to their father—assuming of course he wanted them.

The only part of coverture that did not favor the man in this situation was that he remained liable for his wife’s debts whether she was in his house or not. So, if she could manage to get credit, her husband would be liable.

Reasons for Divorce

If a full parliamentary divorce was pursued, there were several acceptable reasons for divorce. Adultery was by far the most common. But, all adultery was not created equal. Adultery by the wife was considered sufficient grounds for a husband to obtain divorce. For the wife, adultery had to be aggravated by physical cruelty (if he beat her to the point of threatening her life), bigamy (which no one thought was a good idea) or incest (like sleeping with the woman’s sister, clearly a great idea, right?)

Criminal Conversation

Since it was not against to law to sleep with another man’s wife, aggrieved husbands had to get a little creative in dealing with the problem. Civil laws concerning trespassing were used in bringing a wife’s lover to court since he ostensibly ‘wounded another man’s property', thus entitling him to financial compensation under civil law. If she ran off with her lover, the husband could also claim damages for the loss of her services as household manager, arguably one of her more valuable contributions to her husband’s household.The euphemistic name for the offense was ‘Criminal Conversation’ (crim con).

Interestingly, the wife was not a party a crim con suit, only her alleged lover. What’s more, women were not permitted to bring suit against other women for adultery with their husbands. (Remember the whole being property thing? That.)

Spousal Abuse

A husband’s adultery was not thought to be as much of an injury as a wife’s since any children in the marriage were assumed to be the husband’s. His property and money would be spent on their upkeep and eventually be their inheritance. Clearly he had much more to lose in the matter than she did. So, in a divorce proceeding a woman had to prove both adultery and cruelty.

If she could not prove bigamy or that her husband was sleeping with a close relation, a woman was in the unfortunate position of having to prove him intolerably cruel.

Not surprisingly, a woman’s legal coverture made this difficult.

According to Blackstone (1765)
The husband also, by the old law, might give his wife moderate correction. For, as he is to answer for her misbehaviour, the law thought it reasonable to intrust him with this power of restraining her, by domestic chastisement, in the same moderation that a man is allowed to correct his apprentices or children; for whom the master or parent is also liable in some cases to answer.
So in short, a man had the right to severely beat his wife if he deemed it appropriate. Proving cruelty was then very difficult. It is comforting to think that Judge Buller amended this understanding somewhat, with his ‘rule of thumb’: A man could thrash his wife with a stick no thicker than his thumb.

A woman could petition the court that her husband inflicted cruel and unjust harm upon her. But to get the sympathy of the court, women had to paint themselves as passive and dutiful victims of truly inhumane treatment. It could be done, but it was difficult at best as evidenced in that of the three hundred twenty four divorces granted between 1670 and 1857, only four were granted to women. (Wright, 2004)

Parliamentary divorce

After receiving a legal separation from an adulterous wife and seeing her declared guilty in a crim con trial, a man could go his separate way, repaid for the damages of his wife’s infidelity. Only a few could afford (or were willing to take) the final step that would allow them to remarry as they chose, a parliamentary divorce.

Cost was not the only deterrent to a Parliamentary divorce. The proceedings were long, messy and very public. Few honorable men wanted their names and private business made part of the public press, to be enjoyed by the ‘Great Unwashed’. Moreover, simply being involved in a divorce proceeding was enough to get one shunned form good society and banned from (Royal) Court. So only three or four cases a year made it before Parliament.

When a Private Act (or Bill) of Divorcement was brought before Parliament, the bill had three readings before the Lords. Witnesses to support the allegations of (almost always the wife’s) adultery had to be present for the second reading. The wife though, could not testify on her own defense. Of course, because at this point, she still has no legal personhood separate from her husband.

If a divorce was granted, it overturned the property settlements made in the marriage articles. Parliament took on the responsibility of redistributing assets. Typically, the woman (since in almost all cases, she was the guilty adulterer) lost all her income, property and any right to see her children. Usually a woman was granted an allowance to maintain herself, just enough for food and housing in most cases. But, since she was not permitted to sue her ex-husband, the chances of her actually collecting that allowance were slim.

Although one of the advantages of a parliamentary divorce was the ability to remarry, a divorced woman could not remarry unless the divorcement settlement specifically gave her permission to do so. Clauses could be included in the settlement that would explicitly forbid her from marrying the man with whom she had committed adultery.

Not entirely surprising, huh?

Find previous instalments of this series here:

Get Me to the Church on Time: Changing Attitudes toward Marriage

Blackstone, William. Commentaries on the Laws of England. Vol, 1 (1765), pages 442-445.

Fullerton, Susannah. Jane Austen and Crime. Sydney: Jane Austen Society of Australia, 2004.

Hager, Kelly. “Chipping Away at Coverture: The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].

Horstman, Allen. Victorian Divorce. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985.

Jones, J.W. A Translation of all the Greek, Latin, Italian and French Quotations which occur in Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England . Philadelphia: T7JW Johnson&Co. 1905.

Koster, Kristen. A Regency Primer on Annulment and Divorce. October 18, 2011 Accessed 12/20/15

Lane, Allison.. Common Regency Errors. Oct 11, 2014 Accessed 12/15/16

Mayer, Nancy. Dissolving a Marriage. Accessed 11/30/2016

Mayer, Nancy. Marriage. Accessed 7/24/16.

Perkin, Jane. Women and Marriage in Nineteenth-Century England. London: Routledge, 1989.

Savage, William . Hapless Husbands and Wandering Wives June 29, 2016. Accessed June 29, 2016.

Stone, Lawrence. Broken Lives: Separation and Divorce in England 1660-1857. Oxford University Press, 1993.

Stone, Lawrence. The Road to Divorce: England 1530-1987. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Stone, Lawrence. Uncertain Unions: Marriage in England 1660-1753. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

SusannahC. Georgian and Regency Divorce. April 25, 2010 , Accessed Jan 12, 2016.

Wilson, Ben. The Making of Victorian Values: Decency and Dissent in Britain, 1789-1837. New York: Penguin Press, 2007.

Wright, Danaya C. “Well-Behaved Women Don’t Make History”: Rethinking English Family, Law, and History, 19 Wis. Women’s L.J. 211 2004), available at Web. July 29, 2016.


Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful. After penning five file-drawer novels in high school, she took a break from writing to pursue college and earn her doctorate. After 16 years of university teaching, she returned to her first love, fiction writing.

Click here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, or  follow on Twitter.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Childhood in Medieval London

By Kristin Gleeson

In Medieval London and throughout all England, parents were concerned about the rearing and education of their children, just as society is today. In the later Medieval period as guilds became more strict, professions were more formally established, among other things, parents worked hard to prepare their children to pass successfully into adulthood, something evident from the many manuals from that time that address these issues.

 The parents were right to be concerned with the many obstacles that faced a child before he reached adulthood. The specter of death hung over all children. There were high risks of infection from various diseases including the plague, the pox, sweating sickness, flux and various fevers, in addition to malnutrition. Any number of possible accidents could befall a child. He or she could get run down by a horse or fall into a hearth fire. A month-old girl, Joan, in Queenhithe, died after a sow entered the home and “mortally bit the right side” of the child’s head. It was disease, though, that caused the majority of childhood deaths in the Medieval period.

 London had a large population of foreigners, especially French, Flemish, Italian and German, but still, the parishes were small and people in each tended to know and protect one another. In that light the London children were probably the best supervised of the whole of the country. The streets were crowded with adults going about their business or pleasure and would notice any child at risk or a child seriously misbehaving.

The first years of a child’s life were usually spent in a cradle, the limbs tightly swaddled in cloth. By their second or third years they would be walking, learning to talk and being toilet trained. At that time the parent would shown them the "jakes" streets and latrines of London,  and in the wealthier families, the use of the chamber pot.

Contrary to some common understanding Medieval society did recognize childhood as something separate from adulthood. There were toys for children of varying quality, the more luxurious ones for the upper classes. Children’s clothes were sturdy and made to size and were not necessarily the adult clothes made smaller. One wax chandler had a little painted table and stool and silver beads and a crucifix for his child.

There were also many guides to raising children, especially in the later Medieval period, all of them filled with plenty of sage advice on best practices for the upper classes, but also for those in trade and other less well off people. Generally, a mother guided the daughters to adulthood while the fathers taught their sons. For the most part, training manuals were focused on the male children, but regardless of which gender it was directed towards, the common theme on child rearing present in all the books was the well known concept, “spare the rod, spoil the child.” A manual written for those who would earn a living cautioned against idleness as well. “You must eat what you get with your hands” it said, while another stated, “a man’s arms are for working as a bird’s wings are for flying.”

 A child’s day (if the manuals are to be believed) usually began by rising early and then attending prayers or some form of devotions, followed by sponging or brushing the day’s clothing, cleaning shoes, combing hair and washing the hands and face and then cleaning the teeth by washing them with an ivory or wooden stick. The manual advised, too, that a child should dress according to his rank in a neat manner with a napkin “for cleaning the nose of all filthiness.”

 After making his bed and a breakfast of meat and drink of small beer or milk, the boys would go off to school, or if school wasn’t an option, they might play in the streets. Schooling for boys was seen as very important in the late 14th and 15th centuries as the many guilds increasingly required functional literacy from anyone enrolling for an apprenticeship. .Daughters usually stayed at home with their mothers who were responsible for all aspects of their daughters’ education.

 Elementary schooling could be obtained from private individuals, a small establishment with just a few pupils, or even a school set up by the church. Some children attended at the expense of the parish. Some girls of the better classes attended the grammar schools for 4 or 5 years where they learned English, accounting, perhaps a little French and Latin. Generally, the male pupils were taught Latin, literacy in English and training in keeping accounts, all tasks needed for a successful working life. To guide the teaching many schools used primers, and each student would pack their satchel with books, pen, parchment or a wax tablet and stylus. Along with Latin and accounts they were taught respect towards their parents and to learn society’s etiquette to maintain their social positions, or to improve it if possible. The general outlook was to help the child achieve a sense of stability and level-headedness that would garner good will among the neighbours.

“If you be well at ease, and sit warm among your neighbours, do not get new-fangled ideas, or be   hasty to change or flit; for if ye do, ye lack wit and are unstable, and men will speak of it and say: ‘This fool can bide nowhere!’”

From: Science & Literature in Middle Ages
The reality was somewhat different from what the manuals would have us believe. Most educational programmes had limited success and many students never learned the required behavior. Most of the apprentices and servants came from the countryside and may or may not have had the recommended training before they arrived in the city. For many Londoners as well, fine manner and cleanliness weren’t always necessary or possible, especially among the lower classes. It is more likely that these children were loud and boisterous, played games in the street and drank too much beer, frequented taverns, tore their clothes and weren’t always polite. Upper class youths no doubt failed these standards on various occasions too. In one instance a goldsmith’s son, William, standing at the top of a lane near Cheap, urinated into a urinal and poured it into the shoe of another young man, and when the man complained, William struck him with his fist. A man standing nearby reprimanded him for his actions. William grabbed a staff and bashed the man on his head so hard that he died.

 After a morning of school, at midday, the youths would break from school, games, or whatever they were doing, and go home for the main meal. City taverns had numerous places to buy food so many Londoners would buy their beer and meat there and take it home for the meal. If not a meat pie, the food would often be served up in 4 day old bread carved into a trencher that acted as a plate or bowl. Diners ate in pairs sharing the beer or wine cup.

In the afternoon the boys returned to their games or schools and the girls to needlework or household chores. The evening meal was light and usually followed by leisure activities. Leisure activities for children took many forms. They might watch a cock fight or play ball in team with other scholars in London fields, play tag, run a race or play hoops. Older boys might go in for bear baiting, throwing javelins, sword practice, wrestling or knucklebones, or even go to the tavern. Occasionally boys would act as jockeys in horse races.

 By the time children reached their teens it was time for the next stage of their lives. For many it meant apprenticeship or service. In the early Medieval period the minimum age for apprenticeship was thirteen, but by the end of the 15th century it rose to sixteen years of age. Entry into university or legal training rose to the late teens by the end of the 14th century. The age to enter service could be as young as seven, but older children were preferred because they were more useful and generally more responsible. London provided many opportunities for temptation, something clearly evident from the terms of the various apprentice contracts. The apprentice contracts also tried to ensure that the teens behaved themselves by requiring them to refrain from late nights, gaming, visits to the theatre and taverns and consorting with prostitutes.

 The relationship between apprentices and masters was very complex. The living and training arrangements could often create misunderstandings. A master could be tempted to abuse his apprentice in matters of discipline because he held the balance of power. The apprentices ultimately could look forward to the day when they would be householders, hold a mastership and be guildsmen. Servants, in contrast, had no such potential achievements. Though they might live among those they served and have kind masters, their pay was much less.

Wheel of 10 Ages of Man, Psalter of Robert de Lisle
The age at which a youth was considered an adulthood rose throughout the Medieval period. The apprentice contract influenced the rise to some degree. A seven year contract for any apprentice meant that adulthood would be deferred to at least 25, or longer, if the apprenticeship exceeded the seven years. Some guilds required an apprentice to serve his master for a further few years. For girls, the picture is less clear. Schooling, if it did take place was shorter and more often than not she entered into marriage at a younger age and her value was in her potential as a wife, so her age for adulthood would be lower. By the time a youth reached adulthood, it was hoped that the boys would be “sad and wise,” prepared for their adulthood and the girls would be suitably skilled for their duties as a wife and mother.

In some ways the childhood of Medieval times differed little from today’s childhood. They were instructed by their parents, played games and got into trouble, and above all the parents hoped to instruct them to take their place in society. And like today, there were varying degrees of success. 


Originally from Philadelphia, Kristin Gleeson lives in Ireland, in the West Cork Gaeltacht, where she plays harp and runs a book club for the village library. She holds a Masters in Library Science and a Ph.D. in history, and for a time was an administrator of a national archives, library and museum in America. She has also worked as a public librarian in America and now works at a library in Ireland.You can read more about her books on her website.

 Kristin Gleeson’s novel, The Imp of Eye features a thirteen year old orphan boy in the streets of London in 1440.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Crawfie and The Little Princesses

by Linda Fetterly Root

The Little Princesses, First Edition 1950

In February 1988, a few months short of her 79th birthday, a somewhat reclusive Scottish woman died in Aberdeen. Her online obituary is skeletal. Considering her background, that should not have been the case. It was as if she had disappeared in the mid-1950’s, never to be seen again. Her name was Marion Crawford, and while her young adulthood had been spent in the service of the House of Windsor, her claim to either fame or infamy, depending on one’s viewpoint, was because of a book.

Marion Crawford, Associated Press, 1949
Until a surprise move by the Queen in releasing her 90th Birthday video, the most noteworthy acknowledgment of Marion Crawford as having lived at all has been the five-page Foreword to a 2003 edition of a book first published in 1950. The author of the Foreword to the newest edition of The Little Princesses by Marion Crawford is BBC Royal Correspondent Jennie Bond, who gently memorializes its author as a woman who had served the Windsors long and well, and parted with the Royals under a cloud of controversy and hints of treachery. Other writers have characterized her as'The Palace Ogre'.  Since the publication of the first edition of her book, Crawford has literally been erased from subsequently authorized accounts of the youth of the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. Her apologist, journalist Jennie Bond is far more famous than the woman whom she eulogizes.

Yet, it was the elusive Miss Crawford, born in Ayrshire in 1909, who influenced the life of a sixth-grade student at Euclid Park Elementary School in Cleveland, when the school principal gave me a copy of The Little Princesses as a going-away gift when we left for California in 1951. Miss Crawford, you see, had spent the past 14 years of her life as governess to the British Royal Family. The princesses in the story were not characters in a fairy tale. They were flesh and blood. I had seen them on the Pathe Newsreels at the movies.

The book sold relatively well in the thriving American market and was the first notable post-war Best Seller in Britain. That is not the least surprising, since, in the post-WWII years, there was considerable curiosity about the members of the current Royal Family and the King who had never been expected to wear the crown. Rather than the handsome, dashing David Windsor, also known as Edward VIII, who in 1936 abdicated for the American divorcee-times-two, Wallis Warfield Simpson, his younger brother Bertie, known as George VI, and his Scottish wife and sweet daughters were rather commonplace. The book has been called both romantic and sympathetic. Only the most jaded reviewer would call it an expose. The current edition is acknowledged as suitable for all ages.The day to day life of tidy Lillibet,( the way the Queen pronounced her name when she was small) and the antics of rambunctious Margaret are described with affection and discretion. Birmingham Mail reporter Maureen Messent, in an article published in 2012 hinted that even today the book was probably the closest glimpse the reading public would ever get of the Windsors.

2003 Edition with forward by Jenny Bond
Yet, from the day it was published, neither Crawfie’s close friend, the consort, Queen Elizabeth (later, the Queen Mother), or either of the princesses spoke to her again. She was totally ostracized by the members of the royal family, and even now, her role in the childhood of the Queen is not mentioned in most accounts. This might be expected of a British Press that had not covered the pre-abdication rumors of Edward VIII’s affair with Wallis Warfield Simpson, which was world news, but even the much more liberal press had little to say when Marion Crawford died in 1988.

‘Crawfie,’ as Marion Crawford had been dubbed by the Queen Consort, had joined the household when she was only 24, and the present Queen was six. Marion had been living in Dunfermline, an ancestral home of Scottish kings. She received her education there and dreamed of a career teaching underprivileged children. Half of her wish came true when friends called her to the attention of the future Queen Consort, then the Duchess of York, who was visiting Edinburgh. At the time, the Yorks were living modestly in Piccadilly with their two young daughters, and had no aspirations of wearing a crown. It is believed the Duke was enthusiastic over the appointment because of Miss Crawford’s youth. He had unpleasant memories of a childhood populated with stiff-necked governesses and tutors and wanted better for his cherished daughters.

Crawfie made a practice of taking the girls to public places and encouraged them to partake in functions appropriate to their station. She was instrumental in having a group of Girl Guides installed in the royal household and was proud of Elizabeth’s activities in support of the war effort. Marion was a shy, pleasant woman, and not without a life of her own. But when the man she later married first proposed and she discussed it with the Queen Consort, it was war time. “You cannot leave us now, Crawfie, not when we need you,' Queen consort Elizabeth is alleged to have said. Marion postponed the wedding until just before she retired in 1948. Like the Royals themselves, she had a strong sense of duty.She put her personal life on hold.
And therein lies the mystery of Marion Crawford. She always claimed she had the permission of the Royal Family to write about them. They, on the other hand, swore she had betrayed a special trust. She never once conceded that the publication of her book was unauthorized. In her book, she writes of the great price the princesses paid for their high positions in terms of a loss of privacy. Even in their public outings, access to the princesses was closely guarded. Crawfie was outraged at the intrusion of the press into discussions of Elizabeth's betrothal to Philip Mountbatten. Never once had she showed a tendency to profit from her position in the household. And yet, two years after her retirement, the book hit the presses, and a relationship that had endured for 14 years ended. From that time hence, when those close to the Crown speak out of school, their behavior is referred to as ‘doing a Crawfie.’ Other than as a subject of scorn, and a symbol of betrayal, Marion Crawford became a non-person in the Queen's childhood.

The inference she violated her position of trust for fame and fortune would appear self-evident if it were not so contrary to her behavior over the years. Recently, reports have surfaced of a plan to permit those closest to the Royal Family during the war years to comment to the American news media, as part of an effort to solidify the alliance between the United States and the Commonwealth. There was, however, a stipulation that those in service of the House of Windsor who published statements or gave interviews do so anonymously. Some of Marion Crawford’s apologists among the press suggest she interpreted the license to speak to be much broader than the Royals intended. But on the other hand, it is hard to picture her as that naive. Some say she felt slighted when other members of the Royal Household had received greater honors than she did when she retired. It is likely we shall never know.

Even her greatest critics agree that nothing in her strong-selling book did anything but elevate the position of the British Royal Family in the minds of those who read it. It certainly did so for me. If popularizing the British Crown with Americans who are both attracted and repulsed by the concept of a monarchy was the objective, the book should have been applauded, and its author should have been made a Dame.

The Final Chapter

The last bit of news on the topic of Marion Crawford comes from a video clip released on the Queen’s 90th Birthday. On January 5, 2017, the on-line edition of the Daily Mail reviews segments of the video and reports a thaw. In posting the queen's video, the Mail displays the film clip with the caption: ' Crawford, who was known as Crawfie and pictured here with the young Elizabeth, is featured in two royal home-movie clips used in BBC1’s Elizabeth At 90 this week — and was, crucially, acknowledged and named by a smiling Queen.’

Linda Root is the author of the novels The First Marie and the Queen of Scots; The Last Knight and the Queen of Scots, and the Legacy of the Queen of Scots series, including Unknown Princess; The Last Knight's Daughter; 1603 The Queen's Revenge; and In the Shadow of the Gallows. It's sequel, The Deliverance of the Lamb is coming this summer.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Christmastide: It's not over yet!

by Emily Murdoch

By this time, many of us may have found that our New Year’s resolutions have already fallen by the wayside, and there will be few of us who still have our Christmas decorations up – and yet in the medieval world, Christmas’ peak had not even happened and New Year was over two months away. 

Adoration of the Magi
by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo 
Epiphany, Twelfth Night, or Twelvetide, celebrated on January 6th as the day on which the Magi visited the baby Jesus in Bethlehem and presented him with gold, frankincense, and myrrh, was considered during the Middle Ages as the true end and climax of Christmas, and to many the most important part. All efforts were made to peak at Epiphany, and the biggest and most impressive displays of wealth and grandeur were reserved for this day by those who had the gold and silver to spend. Why do you think the traditional Christmas carol Twelve Days of Christmas, published in 1780, increases the gifts with every day that passes and is most extraordinary at day twelve?

And speaking of gifts, Epiphany was the day on which gifts were distributed, alms to the poor were given, and all debts repaid. This was a time to celebrate the goodness of the season past and the hopes and expectations of the season to come. There are records in Turkey from the year 400 AD of children going door to door offering small gifts (usually fruit), covered with silver paper, and then receiving from the households gifts in return often double the value – an early ancestor, perhaps of trick or treating. Then, as today, many in the Church disapproved of this ‘greedy’ practice.

Epiphany was also the last day of feasting before a return to fasting, and many of the rich and noble would ensure that this was the most striking of the Christmas celebrations. If a lord received permission from his King, his table would be allowed to serve swan, whereas at the other end of the social scale, goose was more typical – although the bird itself would still cost a whole day’s wages. The scraps from the local lord’s table would often find their way to the tables of the poor, but it would not be pleasant eating from a modern perspective: tongue, brain, and sometimes ears, all of which would be known as umbles (from the Norman French, nomble, meaning ‘innards’) – where we get our ‘humble pie’ from.

Some of the treats on the table at Epiphany we would recognise instantly: candied fruit and sugared almonds were popular yet expensive puddings that the wealthy enjoyed. The poor would make do with salted fish, or garlic and salt if they were particularly lucky, as these flavourings were costly and often only consumed during these festivities. Gingerbread was a delicacy, and so was apple pudding, known as pommesmoile, as apples had to be stored for months. And if you really wanted to amaze people at Epiphany, there was only one thing that you needed to have: peacock. Although arguably much less delicious than other fowl alternatives, the cooked flesh of the peacock would be placed back inside the skin, and sewn up, so that it looked alive with full plumage as it sat on the table!

Banquet du paon

In some places a Lord of Misrule was elected on All Hallow’s Eve, November 1st, who would rule until Candlemas which falls on February 2nd, an individual who would encourage festivities, nonsense, large amounts of eating, and practical jokes. During this time it was expected for lords and masters to serve their own servants. Turning the world on its head was considered a beneficial way to let off steam, to allow people to test out their own desires, and then to return to the natural order of life for the rest of the year – an inspiration, perhaps for the popular modern film series called The Purge.

Twelfth Night by Hablot Knight Browne

All of this occurred on or near Epiphany which was always January 6th – but New Year, on the other hand, was not to be celebrated on January 1st in England until the 17th century. The Anglo-Saxons considered the New Year to begin on December 25th, Christmas Day, but after the Norman Conquest this was changed to March 25th, the Annunciation. This makes logical sense: the Christian festival marks the day that Mary is told by an angel that she is bear the Christ child, and this natural beginning, understood and appreciated by generations whose lives were ruled by the natural seasons, feels like an obvious choice for the New Year.

This English practice continued past the time of Shakespeare, who would have celebrated the New Year with his friends and family in March, but it was not a globally accepted method of dating the year. Frances and Joseph Giles write a fascinating passage in their book Life in a Medieval City, which includes the following:
"A traveller setting out from Venice on March 1, 1245, the first day of the Venetian year; finding himself in 1244 when he reached Florence; and after a short stay going on to Pisa, where he would enter the year 1246. Continuing westward, he would return to 1245 when he entered Provence, and upon arriving in France before Easter (April 16) he would be once more in 1244."
It was not until almost the 1600s that the calendar was moved back to the way that the Romans organised it, with January 1st becoming the beginning of the year once more. It was Pope Gregory XIII who officially changed it in 1582, but it took decades for the change to filter through Europe – then as now, old habits die hard. So how did medieval people celebrate New Year, whenever it happened to occur for them?

One tradition that was loved by the people and hated by the Church was the Feast of Fools, celebrated in France and more recently appearing in the Disney film The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Similar to the English custom of the Lord of Misrule, everything was turned upside down, with the poor able to mock the rich, men dressed as women, gambling was permitted (even encouraged!), and undoubtedly, lives were changed in the chaos that ensued. Unsurprisingly, the Church had quelled the Feast of Fools entirely by the 1700s.

A little further afield, New Year’s Eve was better known as Sylvester in Poland, after Saint Sylvester who slayed a dragon on December 31st in 1000. The Irish would remember those who had died that year by lighting candles and setting an empty place at the table. In England, gifts were given just as there are today at Christmas, with the expectation that giving now meant receiving yourself throughout the year. This was taken very seriously by medieval people; without a benefits system or social safety net, there was only the good feeling between neighbours and family to prevent a family from falling to ruin if they met with bad luck, and so social ties had to be continuously developed.

Christmas and New Year have been celebrated by people of all nationalities since records have begun, and yet in many ways the celebrations of the medieval era would be completely unrecognisable to us today.


Life in a Medieval City. Frances Gies and Joseph Gies, Harper Collins, 2010.
“On the Festival of the Calends”, Asterius, AD 400.
Umble Pie – from The Foods of England project, \

History of Christmases Past: History Events. Suzi Love, Suzi Love, 2013.

Media Attributions

Adoration of the Magi: By Bartolomé Esteban Murillo - JAFwsBSXui7rdg at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons 

Banquet du paon: By Anonymous 15th century painter [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Twelfth Night: By Hablot Knight Browne: scanned by Steven J Plunkett - 19th century printing of the above work, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Emily Murdoch is a medieval historian and writer. Throughout her career so far she has examined a codex and transcribed medieval sermons at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, designed part of an exhibition for the Yorkshire Museum, worked as a researcher for a BBC documentary presented by Ian Hislop, and worked at Polesden Lacey with the National Trust. She has a degree in History and English, and a Masters in Medieval Studies, both from the University of York. Emily has a medieval series and a Regency novella series published, and is currently working on several new projects.

Buy her books from Amazon UK and Amazon US.

You can follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Monday, January 2, 2017

An Englishman's Castle

by April Munday

Siege of Acre: Public Domain [Wikimedia Commons]

Castles were introduced into England in the 1040s by French supporters of Edward the Confessor. There were only four of them (one at Clavering in Essex and three in Herefordshire) and it wasn’t until after the Conquest in 1066 that the English understood what castles really meant. The Normans erected them in large numbers across the country and used them to oppress the Saxons.

Castles were a tenth-century response to Viking raids in France and were developed as a means of protecting communities. By the eleventh century, they were being used by lesser lords to resist their overlords and to dominate their own underlings. These basic castles were wooden towers sited on raised mounds of earth surrounded by a wooden palisade. The mounds were mottes and the enclosure within the outer palisade was the bailey. The effectiveness of motte and bailey castles could be improved by digging a ditch outside the palisade, making it more difficult for the enemy to enter the defended area.

In its earliest forms, the bailey was situated just inside the outer palisade or wall, and provided an area in which animals could be kept or where people from the town or nearby villages could shelter from attack. Where possible, a castle was built on a hill, but where this was not possible, a hill had to be built. Then a high tower was erected within the defensive walls.

Stone castles were rare until the twelfth century. Motte and bailey castles could be erected in a few weeks (one at York took eight days), while stone castles could take decades. The castle that is being built in the thirteenth-century style at Guédelon as an archeological experiment is planned to take 20 years. The medieval building season lasted from March to September and successive building seasons can be seen in the horizontal lines in some castle walls.

In England, at the turn of the twelfth century, there was probably a castle, however basic, every 10 miles. The vast majority of these, however, have disappeared, as they fell out of use or were destroyed in civil wars. The twelfth century Bridgnorth Castle (pictured below) was destroyed by the Parliamentarians after a successful siege in 1646.

Bridgnorth Castle © April Munday

From the thirteenth century a licence from the king was required before a castle could be built in England. By then the Plantagenets had learned that castles could just as easily be used against a king as for him.

Sometimes booty brought back by soldiers fighting abroad was invested in building castles and fortifications in England. In much the same way that the exterior of a castle was designed to impress, so was the interior. The walls would have been plastered and painted with many colourful designs or covered with tapestries. The presence of garrison soldiers would have instilled a sense of fear into a visitor, welcome or unwelcome. The visitor would be led through increasingly opulent areas until they were brought before the lord in his solar. Only lords of great houses or castles had an entire room to themselves.

Edward I was one of the greatest castle-builders of the Middle Ages. He built castles in Wales to support his conquest of and dominion over that country. They were built on the coast so that they could be supplied by sea, but they were poorly maintained and fell into disuse fairly quickly.

Castles were designed to be difficult to take by besiegers. Arrow loops were built into walls so that archers could shoot out to any area from which an attack might come. Arrow loops were narrow vertical openings in the wall. Inside they opened out into a V, which gave the archer both a good line of sight to the attackers and plenty of room to shoot, but protected him from the attackers’ arrows.

Catchcold Tower, Southampton
© April Munday

Castles were supposed to put the opposition off attacking. Their walls were high to make scaling as difficult as possible. They were also thick to provide protection against siege weapons such as trebuchets and battering rams. A garrison of soldiers would be stationed within the castle. If the besiegers misjudged the size of the garrison, or if their own number dwindled after a lengthy siege (dysentery and disaffection contributed to this) the besieged could leave the castle and see off the attackers. It did not need a large garrison to withstand a siege. Castles were not impregnable, though, and walls could be brought down by mining beneath them and then lighting fires.

Castles could be military strongholds and/or royal and aristocratic residences. After the eleventh century they were not usually large enough to provide refuge for many civilians other than those already living in the castle. Although they were built for defensive purposes, they were not, however, great defensive weapons. Unless they were of strategic importance, they could simply be bypassed by the enemy. Garrison forces were not usually sufficient to fight a full-scale battle, their primary purpose being to defend the castle once it had been attacked. Most castles were never put to the test, either because they were considered to be impregnable, or because they simply weren’t considered important enough to be worth the effort involved in an attack or siege. Despite this medieval wars were usually won or lost by sieges, not by battles. Where a castle was considered to be important enough to be worth besieging, its surrender could have consequences that lasted for generations. When the castle was taken, so was the region that it protected. They were often administrative centres, which was why their surrender was usually more important than winning or losing a battle.

Castles have been part of the English landscape for almost a thousand years. They have ranged in size from little more than a fortified house, such as Stokesay Castle, to huge structures, such as Kennilworth and Dover. In most cases even the ruins are impressive. I’m looking forward to visiting Guédelon when it’s complete to get an idea of what a functioning medieval castle really looked like.


Armies and Warfare in the Middle Ages – Michael Prestwich

The Norman Conquest – Mar Morris

Inside the Medieval World – James Harpur

The Mediaeval World Complete – Robert Bartlett

Knight – Robert Jones

The Making of Europe – Robert Bartlett

The Medieval Siege – Jim Bradbury


April Munday lives in Hampshire and has published six novels set in the fourteenth and early nineteenth centuries. They include The Traitor’s Daughter, His Ransom, The Winter Love and the Regency Spies Trilogy. They can be purchased from Amazon. A novel set around the sack of Limoges in 1370 will be available early in 2017.

Her blog ‘A Writer’s Perspective’ arose from her research for her novels and is a repository of things that she has found to be of interest. She can also be found on Twitter (@aprilmunday)